Well, do you recognize the car in the picture and still remember it? Yes, the car resembles the Mini Moke, which has enjoyed cult status since the mid-1960s as an alternative to the VW Buggy. The completely open Mini offshoot was not only seen in James Bond films but even as the private car of film stars such as Brigitte Bardot.
Recently, we were also allowed to take a seat in one of these unique vehicles and drive it across the Swabian Alb. That’s right: we drove it. With the exception of the unique design and the chassis, this car has little in common with the original, even though it bears the old Morris brand name.
A small battery is all it takes
The first prototype has a 20 kWh battery for a range of around 140 kilometers; thanks to the range extender, the possible radius increases to more than 800 kilometers, and that without long charging breaks.
The most important innovation of the prototype, which the specialists for special vehicles built together with partners: An e-drive is hidden under the front hood, and a methanol fuel cell operates in the rear as a power supplier according to the principle of a range extender.
This means that only the electric motor drives the wheels and draws the necessary energy from a battery, which in turn is also charged by the fuel cell on the road.
This all sounds somehow familiar, but unnecessarily complicated. On closer inspection, however, it does have its advantages.
In contrast to purely battery-electric vehicles, this concept allows the battery to be much smaller, as the range extender produces electricity on the road and continuously replenishes the energy storage system.
This results in significantly lower CO2 emissions during production than with large batteries. In addition, the lithium iron phosphate battery used is already easier to recycle, in contrast to the widely used NMC packages with lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide.
The secret behind the concept: the fuel cell first converts the fuel methanol into gaseous hydrogen and then generates electrical energy from it in the next step by means of electrochemical processes. In the first prototype, the 20-kWh battery alone is sufficient for a range of around 140 kilometers, although the capacity can be halved in the long term.
Thanks to the range extender, the possible radius increases to over 800 kilometers, and that without long charging pauses.
Now, neither the principle of the fuel cell in the car nor the fuel methanol are new. For one thing, methanol fuel cells have been used for several years to supply electricity for camping, and internal combustion engines can also run on methanol.
On the other hand, a number of series-produced passenger cars are already on the road with fuel cell drive systems. So where does innovation lie?
Quite simply: in the combination. Up to now, fuel cell vehicles have used hydrogen as fuel. In addition, the high-temperature fuel cell from Siqens has two advantages over camping systems: Firstly, it achieves a higher level of efficiency thanks to a working temperature of 160 degrees Celsius, and secondly, it does not need to be heated at temperatures below zero degrees, but still starts up to -20 °C.
But we notice almost nothing of all the theory and technology on the road.
Everything feels like an electric car – and that’s what the prototype is, after all. Full torque is available from the start, and the car accelerates briskly.
However, it stops at around 70 km/h for the time being, as the fuel cell with its current continuous output of only 500 watts would otherwise not be able to supply enough energy over time.
A 1.5 kW unit is already in the planning stage, however, and a 3 kW fuel cell is to be used later to enable faster trips.
However, the speed limit does not diminish the first impression, especially since the Morris does without windows and doors just like its prototype. Thus, the desire for significantly higher speeds rarely arises in the freshening airstream.
Although the methanol fuel cell does not emit any exhaust gases such as NOX, CO and particulate matter, it does emit some CO2 – at least considerably less than a comparable gasoline engine.
We enjoy the winding roads on the Alb, while the fuel cell hums quietly behind us. The methanol fuel cell does not emit any exhaust gases such as NOX, CO or particulate matter, but it does emit some CO2, which is considerably less than a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle. Overall, CO2 emissions can be cut by 40 percent or more. But why all the effort?
While hydrogen has to be compressed to 700 bar pressure for use in cars, which makes the construction of a suitable infrastructure quite expensive and time-consuming and harbors a certain risk potential, methanol can be handled similarly well and easily as classic gasoline and can be distributed via the existing infrastructure.
It is even already standardized in the EU and the US as M100. In addition, methanol can be produced synthetically from renewable energies, which would make its operation CO2-neutral. Currently, however, the fuel is still mainly produced from natural gas.
Nevertheless, the concept, which was developed in a project at the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University in Stuttgart (DHBW), has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions in American road traffic by 30 percent by 2030 and virtually to zero by 2050.
Whether, when and at what price vehicles with the new drive will actually be produced and sold remains to be seen. However, CS is already working on further prototypes that are to be further developed and presented in spring 2021.